Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Convenience of Books

I was reading through T.M. Law's When God Spoke Greek (as I've mentioned before--and I've finished it now: excellent, highly recommended) and I came to his discussion of the switch from scrolls to codices. He relies here on Larry Hurtado's book The Earliest Christian Artifacts (ch. 2) in saying that the usual reasons scholars have given for the change from scroll to codex do not exactly hold up when the evidence is examined. Law writes
Why did Christians embrace the codex? Scholars have explained that the codex was more portable, easier to read than unwieldy scrolls, and less costly. But none of these factors satisfactorily explain early Christians' almost complete adoption of the codex. What is more, the artifactual evidence indicates that scrolls were not so difficult to carry, were not so unwieldy to read, and were hardly more expensive than the codex, especially since early Christian book production manifests no apparent concern to save money by writing smaller in more compact volumes. (p. 120)
This reminds me of the current situation with book technology. Of course, I am not the first to point out that we are going through a similar (similar in some ways, at least) transition in our book technology--print to digital--just as the ancients transitioned from the scroll to the codex. I sometimes feel like I'm one of those ancient readers who stubbornly holds onto his scroll. I suspect that in a hundred years or more, when scholars look back on our age and talk about the triumph of digital book culture, they will create a narrative such that as soon as the technology became available, of course everyone gave up the unwieldy print books and picked up their Kindles and iPads and rejoiced. After all, digital readers are some much more portable and convenient than print books (I can't say less expensive, though the actual content, book, often is once the initial investment is made).

And yet, many of us are having a hard time seeing the Kindle or iPad as really the more convenient option, especially when it comes to scholarly books, where I like to flip back to the Table of Contents, or read a footnote, or go back and re-read an argument, or just look ahead to how long this section is. I find a print book so much more convenient for these purposes. Just as, perhaps, some ancients (especially scholars?) found scrolls so much more convenient, despite the narrative some of us had created about them.

And it gives us a chance to watch this video again.

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